In the last installment, we met the seven men and one woman who faced trial by military tribunal for their alleged roles in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. But there were two others involved in the supposed conspiracy: the mastermind and assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and his alleged right-hand man, John Harrison Surratt, Jr., son of the executed Mary Surratt.
Like most of his alleged co-conspirators, Surratt was a well educated, good looking young man from a well-to-do Northern family. He was born in April 1844 to John and Mary Surratt, and was baptized at St. Peter’s Church in – where else? – Washington, DC. He was educated at St. Charles College in, naturally enough, Maryland. At the tender age of eighteen, following the death of his father, Surratt became the Postmaster of Surratsville. Beyond that, little is known about the early life of the man cast by the government as Booth’s primary accomplice. As Theodore Roscoe wrote in The Web of Conspiracy:
“Official records on John Harrison Surratt, Jr., are similarly devoid of depth … He passes through Washington like a shadow. His appearances in the house on H Street are shadowy. Now he is glimpsed in Richmond. Next he is glimpsed in Canada. The authorities can never quite lay their hands on him, and neither can the historians. Of the immediate members of Booth’s coterie, least is known about John Harrison Surratt, Jr.”
John Harrison Surratt, Jr., as sketched by an artist for Harper’s Weekly
Roscoe claims, as have many other historians, that Surratt “operated as spy and as message-bearer, conveying Confederate dispatches between Richmond, Washington, and Montreal, Canada. By the time Mrs. Surratt’s boardinghouse was well established in Washington, John H. Surratt had become a well paid and highly adept operator in the Secret Service of the C.S.A. [Confederate States of America]” Maybe so. It seems far more likely though, given various facts of the case, that he was actually a Union operative posing as a Confederate operative. Or that the two ‘sides’ were actually one and the same, as seems likely.
Of the ten alleged conspirators, Surratt, who celebrated his 21st birthday just one day before Lincoln was gunned down, was the only one not to be captured or killed in the massive manhunt that followed the assassination. He quickly made his way to Canada, where he found sanctuary with a Catholic priest during the time that his mother was being tried, sentenced and hanged. He left Canada in early September, some two months after the executions had been carried out. From that point on, the US government appears to have been well aware of his movements and whereabouts.
John Surratt in his Papal Zouave uniform
On March 4, 1867, the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle summarized the findings of an investigation by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives as follows: “It appears that Surratt sailed from Canada in September 1865, and landed in Liverpool on the 27th of the same month; that the fact of his landing was communicated to Secretary Seward by the American vice consul, Mr. Wilding. No steps were taken by the President or Secretary of State to secure his arrest. No demand was made upon England for his return to this country, nor is there any evidence of the procurement or attempted procurement of an indictment against him.”
Surratt himself would later say that, “While I was in London, Liverpool and Birmingham, our consuls at those ports knew who I was and advised our State Department of my whereabouts, but nothing was done.” Curious behavior indeed for a government that had, just months earlier, aggressively prosecuted and executed lesser conspirators.
On November 24, 1865, two months into Surratt’s leisurely stay in England, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton abruptly withdrew the standing reward on Surratt’s head, clearly signaling to Europe and elsewhere that the US wasn’t all that interested in pursuing the capture and prosecution of the alleged conspirator. Stanton, needless to say, offered no explanation for his unusual actions.
In April 1866, Surratt sailed from England to Italy, arriving in Rome, where he was almost immediately assigned a position with the Pope’s elite Papal Zouave military guard. On April 21, a fellow Zouave, Henri de Sainte-Marie, who happened to be an old friend from Maryland, informed America’s minister to Rome, General Rufus King, of Surratt’s whereabouts and true identity. A Cardinal Antonelli explained to King that “if the American government desired the surrender of the criminal there would be no difficulty in the way.” The US government, nevertheless, chose to look the other way.
Returning once again to the summary of the findings of the House Committee, we find that “news of [Surratt’s] presence in Rome did reach the ears of minister King. He was informed by another than the Secretary of State that Surratt was in the military service of the Pope, and communicated the fact by letter, dated August 8, 1866, to his department. Notwithstanding this, no steps were taken to identify or secure the arrest of the supposed conspirator and assassin …” [emphasis added]
No explanation was given, of course, for the nearly four-month delay in drafting and sending the letter. On November 11, 1866, after Surratt had been going about his business in Rome for some seven months, making no effort to disguise himself, Papal authorities ordered his arrest. He allegedly then leapt from a cliff and made his escape, somehow supposedly surviving a 100-foot drop and evading at least 50 soldiers who were in hot pursuit within minutes. He then casually made his way across Italy, keeping a low profile by continuing to wear the garishly colored uniform of the Papal Zouave.
Barracks at Veroli, Italy, from where John Surrat purportedly escaped
After making his way to Naples, where he was sheltered by the local police and allowed to sleep at the station as a non-paying guest for three nights, he booked passage first to Malta and then to Alexandria, Egypt. On November 27, 1866, he was finally arrested by US authorities. It was almost another full month though before he was dispatched back to the US aboard the Swatara, a US Navy vessel, which set sail on the winter solstice, December 21, 1866.
That return voyage took unusually long to reach the states, nearly a month and a half. Had a paddleboat been available, Washington likely would have opted to use that. Upon reaching US shores, the vessel was delayed for another few weeks while the crew waited for ice to melt on the Potomac. There were, of course, other ports available from which Surratt could have been quickly transported by train to Washington, but authorities chose to delay his arrival for as long as possible.
As researcher Vaughan Shelton (Mask for Treason) wrote, “When the papal government in Rome finally forced the issue by arresting Surratt, every possible tactic was used to delay his return.” Otto Eisenschiml (In the Shadow of Lincoln’s Death) concurred, noting that “Stanton had tried his utmost to keep Surratt from being brought back at all …”
On February 4, 1867, the Grand Jury of the District of Columbia indicted John Surratt, who was still being held aboard the Swatara at the mouth of the Potomac. On February 19, the Swatara finally anchored at the Washington Navy Yard and Surratt set foot on US soil for the first time in nearly two years. A bench warrant for his arrest was issued that same day. Four days later, on February 23, Surratt was brought to court to enter a plea.
Lead defense attorney Joseph H. Bradley
Co-counsel Richard T. Merrick
On April 18, 1867, Surratt’s defense attorneys filed a motion to set a date for the start of the trial, saying they were fully prepared to proceed. On that very same day, the district attorney’s office filed a motion for a continuance. It was just the first of many attempts by the state to delay the onset of the trial. The New York Herald reported, on May 19, 1867, that the “prisoner’s legal representatives have over and over again reported themselves ready, but, contrary to the general ruling, the prosecution, after six months of preparation, has never yet been able to say, ‘We are prepared to proceed with the trial.’” Ten days later, the Baltimore Sun added that it “is hinted that, for reasons not made public, the trial of Surratt is not at all desirable.”
The question that most obviously comes to mind throughout this sordid chapter of US history is why the government suddenly lost the desire to aggressively pursue and prosecute the last alleged Lincoln conspirator? The primary reason is that, with the war over, Washington no longer had any justification for seeking ‘justice’ through a military tribunal and would have to rely instead on civilian courts. And that meant that the proceedings couldn’t be controlled and corrupted to nearly the extent that they had been throughout the first mock trial.
That presented Washington with a huge problem. Without the muzzling of the defendant, and without the wholesale introduction of perjured testimony and manufactured evidence, and with the requirement that actual rules of law be followed, the state had little chance for a conviction. And given that eight others had already been either executed or exiled to America’s version of Siberia, despite the fact that they had played lesser roles in the alleged conspiracy, it wasn’t going to look very good to have John Surratt walk out of the courtroom a free man.
In addition, the government had pulled out all the stops to lay the assassination to rest as quickly as possible. The other alleged conspirators had been rounded up, indicted, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed/imprisoned in less than three months, primarily because Washington had a vested interest in wrapping things up as quickly as possible, before too many troubling questions could be raised. The last thing they now wanted to do was reopen the case to public scrutiny.
Given little choice though in the matter, the case proceeded to trial in June 1867. And true to form, the state did its very best to rig the proceedings. As America’s first Secret Service chief, William P. Wood, later wrote, Surratt was “confronted with an abundance of perjured testimony.” He was also confronted with an abundance of bogus evidence, including a document that had supposedly been in the water for six weeks before being recovered, but which showed no signs of exposure whatsoever.
And then there were the laughably biased jury instructions delivered by presiding Judge George Fisher, which kicked off with the immortal words: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed. So spake the Almighty.” One would have to search far and wide through the annals of American jurisprudence to find a more wildly inappropriate set of jury instructions.
Presiding Judge George P. Fisher
To insure that the trial was properly rigged, Secretary of State William Seward hired Edwards Pierrepont, an old friend of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, to assist the prosecution, although neither the State Department nor the War Department should have had anything to do with what was ostensibly a civil trial. Pierrepont was a descendant of James Pierepont, a cofounder of Yale University. Also hired by Seward, to assist Pierrepont, was Albert G. Riddle. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ diary would later reveal that Riddle “had been employed by Seward to hunt up, or manufacture, testimony against Surratt.”
One of the most bizarre aspects of the Surratt trial was the testimony delivered by our old friend Henry Rathbone, who was called to the stand, as he had been at the military trial, to provide eyewitness testimony as to the shooting of Lincoln. Although it was not commented upon at the time, or for decades after, Rathbone was clearly not spontaneously recalling events as they had happened, but rather was reciting his testimony from a memorized script.
That script appears to have been created on April 17, 1865, two days after Lincoln died, when Rathbone was purportedly deposed. A portion of that alleged deposition reads as follows: “That on April 14th, 1865, at about 20 minutes past 8 o’clock in the evening, he, with Miss Clara H. Harris, left his residence, at the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets, and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them in their carriage to Ford’s Theater, in Tenth Street … When the party entered the box, a cushioned armchair was standing at the end of the box farthest from the stage and nearest the audience … When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while this deponent was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with his back toward the door, he heard the discharge of a pistol behind him, and looking around, saw, through the smoke, a man between the door and the President … This deponent instantly sprang toward him and seized him; he wrested himself from the grasp, and made a violent thrust at the breast of deponent with a large knife. Deponent parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in his left arm, between the elbow and the shoulder …”
One month later, on May 15, 1865, Rathbone testified before the military tribunal. With the exception of delivering his testimony in the first person, it was a nearly verbatim recital of the script prepared the month before, and went a little something like this: “On the evening of the 14th of April last, at about 20 minutes past 8 o’clock, I, in company with Miss Harris, left my residence at the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets, and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them, in their carriage, to Ford’s Theater in Tenth Street … On entering the box there was a large armchair that was placed nearest the audience, farthest from the stage … When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back towards the door, I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw, through the smoke, a man between the door and the President … I instantly sprang towards him, and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm, between the elbow and the shoulder …”
A little over two years later, on June 17, 1867, Rathbone dusted off his script and delivered the following testimony at the trial of John Surratt: “On the evening of the 14th of April, at about 20 minutes past 8, I, in company with Miss Harris, left my residence at the corner of Fifteenth and H streets, and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them in their carriage to Ford’s Theater, on Tenth street … On entering the box there was a large armchair placed nearest the audience, and furthest from the stage … When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while I was intently observing the performance on the stage, I heard the report of a pistol from behind me, and on looking round saw dimly through the smoke the form of a man between the President and the door … I immediately sprung towards him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and at the same time made a violent thrust at me with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received it on my left arm, between the elbow and the shoulder, and received a deep wound …”
State Department/War Department representatives Edwards Pierrepont
Albert G. Riddle
In the end though, the government’s brazen attempts to corrupt the proceedings failed to pay dividends and the jury was left hung 8-4 in favor of acquittal. Even with the obviously perjured testimony, the manufactured evidence, and the wildly inappropriate jury instructions, the state was only able to secure four votes for conviction. And Surratt had found himself a number of new fans. As Eisenschiml noted, “The ladies of Washington considered him quite attractive and thronged the courtroom.”
John Harrison Surratt walked out of court a free man, and the state quietly opted not to further pursue the charges. Five years later, he married Mary Victorine Hunter, a second cousin of none other than Francis Scott Key, whose son’s murderer, it will be recalled, was defended by Edwin Stanton. Key’s great-great-granddaughter Pauline Potter, by the way, later married Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of the infamous Rothschild banking family.
Surratt lived to the ripe old age of 72, passing away, curiously enough, on April 21, 1916, precisely 50 years to the day from when he had been identified in Rome as a member of the Papal Zouave. It is said that he had penned a biography, but he supposedly opted to burn it a few days before his death. In a similar vein, Robert Todd Lincoln is said to have burned all his father’s private papers shortly before his own death – because, I suppose, one wouldn’t want the truth about the assassination of one’s father to reach the public domain.